As historical drama Domina returns for a second season, DQ heads to Rome and the celebrated Cinecittà Studios to meet the cast of this epic series and find out why it’s described as Rome meets House of Cards.
Ghosts stalk the back lot of Cinecittà – and some pretty famous ones at that.
On a glorious sunny autumnal day in Rome, DQ is walking on hallowed cinematic ground, wandering past random, apparently abandoned statues of Roman gods and Egyptian sphinx.
We are touring the oldest and largest film studios in Europe. Everywhere you go, the celebrated names who have graced this historic studio in the past echo around the 19 sound stages: Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, Federico Fellini and Sergio Leone, Martin Scorsese and Daniel Day-Lewis, Sophia Loren and Marcelo Mastroianni.
Cinecittà, where such all-time great movies as Quo Vadis?, Roman Holiday, Ben-Hur, Cleopatra, La Dolce Vita, Romeo & Juliet, Fellini’s 8 ½, For a Few Dollars More, Once Upon a Time in America, Fellini’s Casanova, The Pink Panther, The English Patient, The Talented Mr Ripley and Gangs of New York have been shot, certainly has a storied cinematic history.
The studio was founded in 1937 by Benito Mussolini. Using the slogan, ‘Il cinema è l’arma più forte’ (‘Cinema is the most powerful weapon’), the Italian dictator aimed to revive the ailing domestic film industry. In the process, of course, he also intended to employ the 20th century’s most potent artistic armament to fire out propaganda.
Since then, more than 3,000 films have been made at the 400,000-square-metre epicentre of Italian cinema, and 51 of them have won Academy Awards. Not for nothing is the world-renowned studio known as “Hollywood on the Tiber.”
That astounding legacy has now cast its spell over the actors in Domina, the latest drama to film at Cinecittà. This vivid series, whose second season begins on Sky Atlantic and NOW tomorrow, centres on Drusilla Livia (Kasia Smutniak).
She is a brilliantly cunning woman who schemes her way to the top in ancient Rome. In Latin, ‘Domina’ means ‘female master,’ and Livia proves herself to be a master of manipulation.
Matthew McNulty, who plays Livia’s husband, the Roman Emperor Augustus Caesar, articulates what makes Cinecittà such a special place to shoot. “It’s the prestige straight away. At Cinecittà, you’re not filming just another period drama,” he says. “The shadows of Fellini and all these great filmmakers are around. It makes you want to create something amazing, something worthy of this incredible history.
“Cinecittà itself has got such character as well. When you first drive through the gates, it feels like something you used to dream about when you were a kid. Then you hear about what other things are filming there at the same time. It’s like village gossip. ‘Which A-List celebrities are shooting here at the moment?’”
The actor continues: “You convince yourself you’re on par with Brad Pitt, who was doing a film at Cinecittà while we were making season one of Domina. Tom Cruise was also filming Mission: Impossible while we’ve been here, and we’ve had Angelina Jolie, Jane Fonda and Charlize Theron all in the unit next to us. It’s amazing to be in such exalted company!”
The splendour of the ancient Roman sets at Cinecittà – there is, for instance, a mighty replica of the forum which is still standing on the backlot after being used in the 2004 HBO series Rome – also assists the cast with the task of immersing themselves in the world of the ancient city.
Polish-Italian actor Smutniak plays the lead character in Domina, which is produced by Tiger Aspect in association with MGM+ Studios. “When you’re on these incredible ancient Roman sets, it really does help you to get into character,” she notes.
The legions of supporting artists in period costume who congregate for the scenes of mass gatherings and gigantic battles also provide a terrific sense of realism. But their behaviour off camera can occasionally be a little distracting.
“When I’m trying to concentrate,” Smutniak adds, “I see the Praetorian Guards on their phones, or hear them talking about a programme they saw on Netflix last night. At those moments, I think, ‘OK, I’m going crazy!'”
Further authenticity is offered by the mere fact of filming in Rome. The modern city is literally built on the ancient one; the two are inextricably intertwined.
The inimitable light of The Eternal City is an enormous boon to the filmmakers, according to Simon Burke (Fortitude, Strike Back), the creator of Domina. “Unfortunately, we had to shoot through the Roman summer, which is boiling hot, but it gives you a Mediterranean light you just can’t match anywhere else,” he says.
“There is a great contrast between the fierceness and the glare of the midday light and the darkness of the shadows. It looks very bright and very dark, which you can’t get if you’re shooting in Cheshire.”
Filming in Rome also endows the production with access to olive groves and beaches and woodlands, which are distinctively Italian. “So it does look very Mediterranean,” Burke says. “Because of the light and the landscapes, it has an authentic Roman feel to it, which you can’t replicate in studios in Prague or Budapest.”
Artists from William Shakespeare (Julius Caesar) and Joseph L Mankiewicz (Cleopatra) to Robert Graves (I, Claudius) and Bruno Heller (Rome) have placed stories in ancient Rome because it makes such an innately thrilling setting for drama. The Wild West nature of that society, a Darwinian universe where only the ruthless survive, is simply magnetic.
Actor and singer Joelle, who takes the role of Vipsania, Tiberius’s wife, says: “This series focuses on the rise and fall of one of the greatest empires, which was so advanced and, in many aspects, was ahead of its time.
“But while the Romans portrayed perfection through their art and sculptures, behind the scenes they were stabbing each other in the back for power. The level of cruelty was unimaginable.”
Roman aristocrats lived lives of luxury beyond our wildest dreams. They lay on divans and were fed grapes by handmaidens before being taken around the city in splendiferous chairs borne by muscular servants. Despite that, there are many intriguing parallels between then and now.
Joseph Ollman, who takes the role of Iullus, a young Roman aristocrat battling for power in this lethal game of thrones, underlines the similarities. “Still today, there’s quite a small group of people who have most of the power in the world, and that power stays within the same circles.
“Those people are as corrupt and desperate to keep hold of it as the ancient Romans were. We still want the same things as they did back then, which is recognition, legacy, love.” A pause before he deadpans: “But we do use the toilet in a very different way.”
Chatting to DQ in his full Roman regalia while sitting in the make-up chair, Ben Batt, who portrays Augusta’s steadfast lieutenant Agrippa, chimes in: “When I first read Domina, I was less interested in the big battles. What intrigued me was the idea that this was like ancient Rome set in the back rooms of the Houses of Parliament, with all the betrayals and the political manoeuvring. It’s like Rome meets House of Cards.”
Christine Bottomley, who plays Scribonia, Augustus’s ex-wife and Livia’s nemesis, points out that there is also a specific link between the world of Domina and what is happening in British politics today. “We went through a very difficult time in our world recently during Covid. It was so hard for everybody, and there were so many losses of life.
“But it transpired that the people who made the rules weren’t following them. There is a parallel there with ancient Rome; the people in power were bending the rules for themselves. We never learn really, do we?”
Domina is also notable because – unusually – it tells the story of ancient Rome from a female perspective. Ollman remarks: “We often overlook women in historical stories because they just weren’t documented in that world run by the patriarchy. So it’s great to be a part of a show that goes against the grain and just focuses on women for once.”
Burke adds: “In our show, women are front and centre, and the men are often in the background being manipulated.”
The makers of Domina are quick to emphasise, though, that despite the compelling nature of the series, we should not try to emulate any of these deeply dislikeable characters. Liah O’Prey, who plays Augustus’s daughter Julia, says: “Please binge-watch it. But don’t copy how any of the characters behave. It’s not a guide to life.”
Finally, would the actors like to have lived back then and been pampered incessantly by servants? Apparently not.
“I’d have been in the lower echelons,” Bottomley laughs. “I wouldn’t have been carried about by servants. I’m happy to have a dabble and play in pretend ancient Rome, but I wouldn’t want to be transported back to that era.
“For a start, I couldn’t eat lying down!”